Walk from Brighton into Hove. Enter the Mist Vape Shop. Edge carefully through the throng of guests – are they here for the show, the vapes or the beer? Continue to the back of the room, turn the silver handle, push open the door and enter the exhibition.
What might you expect?
Is this a carport or a funeral parlor? A shrouded form, about the size of a small charabanc, takes up most of the floor space. Is it really a car? A waterproof, protective car protector covers the squarish, stolid form. Nothing moves, but it does not look heavy or monumental. A sheath of sorts creates a sense of mystery – but it has a feeling of commonplaceness about it. The perverse pleasure of not lifting the sheet to see what’s underneath overpowers any attempt to take a peep. Strange contradiction.
At each end of the greyish form two vaguely eye-like slits might be considered as a sad and a happy cartoon face. From the world of theatre it’s comedy (Thalia) and tragedy (Melpomene). Both were daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. The latter was (is?) the Greek Goddess of Memory. Have we met before?
Standing on top is a singular, thin Chinese figurine. He’s certainly not Greek – but appears ancient nonetheless. Is this a shrine? He is anonymous, but strangely sentinel. He has authority. People giggle.
Around the form that is approached with an attitude of unexpected awe, the air is coloured purple and is comfortingly atmospheric. The LED monochrome light source from the floor produces a deep violet to lavender, misty dreamscape. The space around the form is rendered airy and cushion-like. It’s an eternal dawn or an evening twilight.
An ambient soundtrack created by audio collaborator Dul Fin Wah! emanates from the centerpiece of the installation. What we see, hear and feel is one integrated whole.
Are memories dream-like?
The artist Jack Lavender is here; along with Tabitha Steinberg and Ella Fleck the co-curators. We’ll talk later – I want to form my own interpretation of this event. But I don’t want to understand. I want to take a ride: destination unknown.
Open: 13 January to 11 February (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays)
In preparation for writing a review of the H-A-R-D-P-A-I-N-T-I-N-G exhibition at the Phoenix gallery in Brighton, Ian Boutell allowed me a sneak preview of the some of the work as it was being arranged for display. As might be expected there was still much to do just four days before the opening event, but the essential decisions on placement of the many works had already been decided after a couple of days of ‘tweaking’. The signs were good for what might prove to be one of the visual arts highlights of 2018 in Brighton as good quality, contemporary painting is lacking a regular stage in the city.
Habitual visitors to Phoenix Brighton will probably be well aware of its history since it was established by a group of artists in 1992 with the primary aim of providing low cost studio space. Today the Phoenix has charitable status and is the largest artist run space in the South East of England, providing workspace and opportunities to share experiences for over 100 hundred local artists, designers and craftspeople. Situated near St. Peter’s Church, barely ten minutes walk from the beach (to the south) and a little closer to the main rail station, Phoenix Brighton provides studio spaces, short-term project space for community groups and supports a gallery and education programme. This brings together professional artists and the general public in a friendly and creative environment – but even more is being done to forge additional and meaningful associations.
Although well known as one of the major visual arts venues in the city (in addition to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Fabrica, ONCA, Coachwerks in Hollingdean and the University of Brighton, Faculty of Arts in Grand Parade) in many ways, the Phoenix Brighton is still an evolving institution with huge potential. With a view to taking the organisation to another level, last year the trustees appointed Sarah Davies as Executive Director to develop the range and scope of existing resources and to further develop a well-established public profile. This will clearly be a demanding task, but various developments (including the Exhibition, Spotlight and Forum programmes) are already enabling the Phoenix to engage the resident artists and visiting arts professionals with positive public engagement, enabling the charity to maintain one of its central aims.
For example, H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G will link the Exhibitions programme to the now regular Spotlight initiative in which Phoenix artists showcase their work and professional practice with opportunities for the public (and the other resident artists) to ask questions about any aspect from the daily life of the artist (thereby demystifying any pre-conceptions) and the conceptual basis of their work. The next Spotlight will be based around a tour of the show with five of the exhibiting artists: Ian Boutell, Philip Cole, Stig Evans, Johanna Melvin and Patrick O’Donnell. The artists have advertised that they will be discussing their practical working processes and what motivates the creation of their work, as well as exploring shared themes and affinities as painters. The selection of work will, in effect, aim to provide a visual forum for a wide-ranging and potentially rigorous dialogue around what might be considered as ‘non-expressionistic’ (or ‘controlled-gestural’?) abstract painting. We shall also see if the ‘show and tell’ session raises questions, and provides answers however tentative, concerning the continuation (some might say, re-emergence) of abstract painting vis-à-vis the pluralistic range of media and formats in contemporary art – or even of the so-called ‘death of painting’. At least that’s my assumption.
Interestingly, in H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G the temptation to exclusively show work by Phoenix artists alone has been avoided by inviting three other participants. Of particular interest for followers of hard-edge abstraction is Tess Jaray RA, who is represented by Karsten Schubert in London. There will just be one of Jaray’s works on show (a screenprint, ‘Minuet’ from 1967, which was at the framers when I visited), which I am expecting to provide an historical touchstone for the exhibition – despite not being a painting. The two other guests are London-based, Johanna Melvin and John Bunker. Melvin is primarily a painter (with a printmaking background), whilst Bunker works in a collage process with painted and printed papers and other materials. I do not know if there is an agenda here, but future collaborations with similar institutions around the country are possible – or even further afield if the Brexit decision plays out as less negative and narrow minded as it appears.
I briefly mentioned the Forum events above, and linking this exhibition to a recent Phoenix event was the Curating: a Concept in Transition forum. This wasa day formed of presentations, group discussion and debate, “…designed to explore the new possibilities that emerge when artists, researchers, curators, educators and their publics join forces to examine and re-specify what a gallery can be, what an artist is and how the borders between curating and creating might be tested and stretched.” (See link below.)
The four resident artists/curators in H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G (Ian Boutell, Philip Cole, Stig Evans and Patrick O’Donnell) have demonstrated, in a small but meaningful way, that distinctions between creating and curating are now overlapping. This is not unusual nowadays as curatorial practice merges with studio practice as two aspects of a contemporary artist’s life. Undoubtedly there will be many reasons for this, including limited access to commercial gallery opportunities; the influence of professional practice educational imperatives in higher education; and an inherent social-engagement agenda that motivates artists to share their practice in a positive community spirit that runs counter to some negative aspects of modern life. They also provide evidence (as if it was needed) that a range of professional expertise exists within the Phoenix studios that will, undoubtedly, continue to be nurtured by the Phoenix as an institution, which has the potential to lead the showcasing of contemporary visual arts in the city, not just for a local audience but for the many visitors who visit this unique coastal resort.
To quote David Garcia (Vice Chair of Phoenix trustees), this show should go some way to supporting the current aims of the “Phoenix (as) an organisation in transition… Phoenix wants to think again about how we programme and use the gallery… The more recent shift in the role of curator will influence programming too, curating itself has become democratised, everyone is able to engage with personal curation projects such as ‘curating’ their Facebook page, also the function of the artist in relation to a curator should be explored.”
Well, here’s the exploration – not only of curating but also of painting – which is better than any digital or virtual format. H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G is the real thing, and I very much look forward to reviewing the exhibition for Abcrit after it opens. (Link below.)